Brain mediators of the effects of noxious heat on pain

Lauren Y. Atlas, Martin A. Lindquist, Niall Bolger, Tor D. Wager

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


Recent human neuroimaging studies have investigated the neural correlates of either noxious stimulus intensity or reported pain. Although useful, analyzing brain relationships with stimulus intensity and behavior separately does not address how sensation and pain are linked in the central nervous system. In this study, we used multi-level mediation analysis to identify brain mediators of pain - regions in which trial-by-trial responses to heat explained variability in the relationship between noxious stimulus intensity (across 4 levels) and pain. This approach has the potential to identify multiple circuits with complementary roles in pain genesis. Brain mediators of noxious heat effects on pain included targets of ascending nociceptive pathways (anterior cingulate, insula, SII, and medial thalamus) and also prefrontal and subcortical regions not associated with nociceptive pathways per se. Cluster analysis revealed that mediators were grouped into several distinct functional networks, including the following: somatosensory, paralimbic, and striatal-cerebellar networks that increased with stimulus intensity; and 2 networks co-localized with "default mode" regions in which stimulus intensity-related decreases mediated increased pain. We also identified "thermosensory" regions that responded to increasing noxious heat but did not predict pain reports. Finally, several regions did not respond to noxious input, but their activity predicted pain; these included ventromedial prefrontal cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, cerebellar regions, and supplementary motor cortices. These regions likely underlie both nociceptive and non-nociceptive processes that contribute to pain, such as attention and decision-making processes. Overall, these results elucidate how multiple distinct brain systems jointly contribute to the central generation of pain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1632-1648
Number of pages17
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2014


  • Connectivity
  • Human
  • Mediation
  • Neuroimaging
  • Nociception
  • Pain
  • fMRI

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine


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